Affluence is when a treat becomes a habit.
It is a slowly growing pattern of life. So slow in its development that we do not even notice it happening to us. We make a thousand little decisions and finish with a way of living that we never planned or meant to happen.
We earn more than we used to and many basic commodities are cheaper than they used to be. This opens up for us new ways of spending our money as well as a better standard of living than we could previously afford. It is good for society to be wealthier and we are part of society.
It is not society’s fault. But the standard of living all around us is rising, and we rise on the tide of normality. We have not gone out on a limb to be different. We are not particularly greedy. It is just the way everybody lives these days. It is not our fault that washing machines, and refrigerators are bigger and better than they used to be. It is not our fault that the cost of overseas travel has dramatically declined. This is just the world we live in today and in which we have to make our myriad of little decisions.
Our missionaries come home every three years or so, and notice how we have changed. Their arrival functions a little like family photos. We pull out the pictures from three years ago and see the changes that we did not notice as we lived through them.
With the family photos there is the common pattern of comments. The children have grown and weren’t the fashions dreadful back then. (They are dreadful today also but it is not generally recognised until we look back in a few years time at some old photos.)
With the missionaries, the common pattern of comments is about our growth in affluence and materialism – our growing wealth and inability to see or observe the changes. But the harshest words they have are for the Christian sell-out to society’s materialism. They left the materialistic key to affluence – their career – in order to bring the gospel to others. They assume that we also left materialism behind. Are we not in fellowship with them? Did we not send them out and do we not support them financially and prayerfully? But when they return they find that we seem to have denied ourselves nothing. Our lifestyle is indistinguishable from our neighbours. Our houses are bigger, our cars are better, our waistlines are thicker, our children are international jetsetters and our toys are more plentiful.
Paralleled to the rise in affluence is the breakdown of families and relationships. The increase in financial independence matches the increase in people living in the lonely isolation of their independence. Holiday resorts now offer staff to keep lonely travellers company as they jog to get fit or play sport because they imagine they are still fit.
Even the non-Christian commentators on affluence – or affluenza as some prefer to call it – have come to recognize that more is not better. Owning more and having more has not produced happier, healthier living. The increase in misery is matched by the increase in boredom. It is astonishing how long we believe the promise that the next gadget, the next experience and the next outing will somehow give flavour and zest to life. The repeated failures of this promise do not seem to dent our gullibility. “You still must have…you deserve it” is the endlessly successful siren song of the advertising industry.
The great danger of the Western world is not external but internal, not militarism but affluence. In 1984 the American academic and commentator Neil Postman compared George Orwell’s sinister and bleak image of our future with that of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. The horror of Huxley’s future was not of totalitarian government persecution and torture but of a society controlled through the medicated bliss of pursuing pleasure. Neil Postman sided with Huxley and wrote a best seller about the media called “Amusing Ourselves to Death.” The seeds of our society’s destruction lie not in our enemies but in ourselves. Affluent materialists live to worry about wealth and are anaesthetized by pleasures.
For the Christian, affluence is the danger of being “choked by the cares and riches and pleasures of life” (Luke 8:14). Little by little, the seed of eternal life, the word of God, is choked out of our lives. The sacrifice that our Saviour made for us, no longer controls our spending patterns or our hearts’ desires. Like the rest of society we will not give up our personal passions or possessions for the sake of others. They can spend eternity in hell but we will not be denied our pleasures on earth. “They are ours, we have worked hard – we deserve them”.
But it all happens millimetre by millimetre – a hundred thousand little decisions. None of them wrong in themselves – but building a pattern of life that destroys the soul. The little treats that we so enjoyed as a child – because they were treats – become affordable everyday. So we indulge ourselves everyday because we can and because we loved those little treats. And slowly the treat becomes a habit. And a habit takes away the special joy of the treat.
Affluence is when a treat becomes trite.